JPPI’s Annual Assessment offers a stock-taking on whether the developments of the last year have affected the reality of Israel and the Jewish world positively or negatively along five different measures: geopolitics, intra-communal relations, resources, identity, and demographics. This year, with an eye to the needs of a new government in Israel, the Institute is providing an assessment for 2021. The assessment does not just provide a portrayal of the realities and the very real challenges they present, but it also offers a number of practical recommendations — and these are especially timely for a new government.
Once again, we are reminded that Israel is a democracy in which the government is changed peacefully through elections. That principle was challenged in the United States leading to the assault on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, but America’s institutions prevailed. Nevertheless, the level of partisan polarization is deeply troubling for the ability of the US government to meet America’s challenges at home and abroad. A substantial majority of Republicans who voted for President Trump in 2020, support his contention that President Biden was elected because of widespread voter fraud, notwithstanding numerous recounts, audits and court decisions to the contrary. There has been a proliferation of laws either passed or proposed by Republican elected officials, which they argue are meant to ensure greater election integrity, but their Democratic opponents argue are aimed at voter suppression of minority voters. In Israel, too, notwithstanding rhetoric so threatening it triggered an unusual warning from the head of the Shin Bet, the institutions prevailed and there has been a peaceful transfer of power. Given the wide representation within the new Israeli government — including an Arab party and parties from the right, center, and left — it will be interesting to see if Israel faces less of a partisan divide than currently exists in America.
As the Assessment points out, the new Israeli government faces a daunting series of challenges internationally and within Israel, including:
- Surging antisemitism driven increasingly by those on the left, who have been fueled by the Gaza War and who seek to undermine Israel’s legitimacy and right to self-defense. When combined with growing right-wing antisemitism, the net effect as indicated in a recent Pew Research Center survey, is that over half of American Jews feel less safe today than they did five years ago;
- Proliferating threats from Iran and its proxies in which Israel could face simultaneously threats from the northern and southern fronts — something that almost emerged in the conflict in Gaza with Hamas as missiles were fired from Lebanon at two different junctures and an Iranian drone was launched into Israel from Syria;
- Growing questions about the potential for diverging approaches with the United States for dealing with Iran and the Palestinians;
- Increasing concern about the relations with the American Jewish community, and America more generally, given elements in the progressive wing of the Democratic party who hold views sharply critical of Israel and who are clearly influencing younger non-Orthodox American Jewry, who feel less emotionally attached to Israel than older American Jews;
- Troubling social and economic consequences of COVID which seem to be promoting the increased potential for exacerbating inequality and income disparity, factors that may give additional impetus to populism and the political instability it produces;
- Worrying manifestations of internal Jewish polarization within Israel and America that are tearing at the fabric of Jewish life.
To address these and other problems, the assessment offers a number of compelling recommendations that we urge the new government to consider carefully and act on, for example:
- On antisemitism, the Israeli government needs to develop a single, integrative body with the means to assess the nature of the threat, how and where it is evolving, and to act to pre-empt or counter it. There must be no diffusion of effort, focus, or resources devoted to this rising threat. (The model here could be what JPPI recommended, and the Israeli government adopted, for dealing with the BDS movement years ago — namely, give one ministry the responsibility to bring all of Israel’s means together in one place to manage the response. In that case, it was the Ministry of Strategic Affairs that became the focal point of all Israeli political, legal, diplomatic, and intelligence responses to BDS.)
- On managing the relationship with the United States and the Biden administration, there must be a strategic dialogue on Iran, the Palestinians and the Abraham Accords, with the aim of minimizing differences and misunderstandings and to avoid surprises. (While not in the assessment, and if the JCPOA is resumed with roughly the same parameters as the 2015 agreement from which the Trump administration withdrew, Israel should focus, in the dialogue with the US, on how best to take advantage of the time until 2030. That is when the key limitations on the Iran nuclear program lapse, and Israel’s aim with the United States should be to enhance deterrence of Iran and dissuade it from going for a threshold nuclear weapons status.)
- On growing gaps with the Democrats in general, and progressives in particular, there needs to be active outreach to show the commitment to bipartisanship but also targeted efforts especially with liberals and progressives by their liberal and progressive counterparts in the new Israeli government. Efforts on both tracks are essential. Recent polls indicate that over 70% of American Jews voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Israel has paid a heavy price for the close identification of the Netanyahu government with the Trump administration. Combined with its very limited efforts at outreach to the broad range of American Jews, the Netanyahu government, even if it did not intend it, did much to alienate liberal and progressive Democrats from Israel. The new Israeli government will need to initiate a serious policy of outreach to Democrats and Independents, and not just Republicans, if it is to retain the bipartisan support Israel has maintained since its founding in 1948. Israel cannot allow itself to become seen as an arm of either political party.
- On polarization among the Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, particularly among young, non-Orthodox American Jews, and the widening gaps between the religious and the secular, the new government should intensify policies to integrate the Haredi sector into Israeli life and should not only do more to reach out to the Diaspora digitally but also promote measures to encourage the formation of non-religious Jewish identity.
The challenges may be real, but the new Israeli government has a chance to put its stamp on policies that recognize the nature of the dangers of the threats and offer a pathway for dealing with them.
Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross